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Managing Editor  | May 2017

3-D printing and electroplating combined to create metal electrodes for beam splitter

Researchers at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have developed a method that combines 3-D printing and electroplating to create complex metal structures that are used as electrodes in a molecular beam-splitter, according to a report on the EPFL website.



The 3-D printer used in this study. (A. Osterwalder/EPFL)


The new process includes 3-D printing a plastic part and electroplating a 10-micrometer thick metal layer onto it. Electroplating uses electrolysis to coat a conductive material with a metallic layer, according to the article, but this is the first time that it has been done with 3-D printed pieces.


“To make the printed plastic pieces conductive and thus amenable to electroplating, they were first pre-treated by a special procedure developed by the company Galvotec near Zurich,” the article explained. “Once the first conductive layer was applied, the pieces could be treated as if they were metallic. The first step can be applied selectively to certain regions of the printed piece, so that the final device contains some areas that are metallic and conductive while others remain insulating.”


This process allowed for complex shapes to be created and sped up the production of the metal electrodes by 50-100 times. It also allowed for a wider range for the type of metal used in coating and produced surfaces with no defects, which was a necessary component of making this process work for the beam-splitting device.


Researchers created two electrically-independent, high-voltage electrodes from a single printed part with the necessary geometry to make it effective in the beam-splitter. All the parts were printed within 48 hours and electroplating only took a day, which is a significant improvement from the months that the standard process takes.


The article concluded, “The new fabrication method highlights the enormous potential that 3D printers have for fundamental research, in a variety of research areas. It especially demonstrates that we can now quickly produce chemically robust electrically conductive pieces with high precision and at low cost since 3D printing is virtually unlimited in terms of design and the geometry of structures.”


The research was recently published in Physical Review Applied. The abstract read:


“We describe a macroscopic beam splitter for polar neutral molecules. A complex electrode structure is required for the beam splitter which would be very difficult to produce with traditional manufacturing methods. Instead, we make use of a nascent manufacturing technique: 3D printing of a plastic piece, followed by electroplating.


“This fabrication method opens a plethora of avenues for research, since 3D printing imposes practically no limitations on possible shapes, and the plating produces chemically robust, conductive construction elements with an almost free choice of surface material. It has the added advantage of dramatically reduced production cost and time.


“Our beam splitter is an electrostatic hexapole guide that smoothly transforms into two bent quadrupoles. We demonstrate the correct functioning of this device by separating a supersonic molecular beam of ND3 into two correlated fractions.


“It is shown that this device can be used to implement experiments with differential detection wherein one of the fractions serves as a probe and the other as a reference. Reverse operation would allow the merging of two beams of polar neutral molecules.”

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